In a recent essay in The Wilson Quarterly, social critic Wilfred McClay uses Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy in America to make sense of the current changes in American higher education.
First, McClay lays out the challenges faced by higher education today:
To say that we are living through a time of momentous change, and now stand on the threshold of a future we could barely have imagined a quarter-century ago, may seem merely to restate the blazingly obvious. But it is no less true, and no less worrisome, for being so. Uncertainties about the fiscal soundness of sovereign governments and the stability of basic political, economic, and financial institutions, not to mention the fundamental solvency of countless American families, are rippling through all facets of the nation’s life. Those of us in the field of higher education find these new circumstances particularly unsettling. Our once-buffered corner of the world seems to have lost control of its boundaries and lost sight of its proper ends, and stands accused of having become at once unaffordable and irrelevant except as a credential mill for the many and a certification of social rank for the few. And despite all the wonderful possibilities that beckon from the sunlit uplands of technological progress, the digital revolution that is upon us threatens not only to disrupt the economic model of higher education but to undermine the very qualities of mind that are the university’s reason for being. There is a sense that events and processes are careening out of control, and that the great bubble that has so far contained us is now in the process of bursting.
Then he introduces us to Tocqueville’s understanding of liberal education:
But more than anything else, Tocqueville praised Americans for their embrace of the principle of self-interest rightly understood. It was a foregone conclusion, in his view, that self-interest had replaced virtue as the chief force driving human action. To tell an American to do virtuous things for virtue’s sake, or at the authoritative direction of priests, prelates, or princes, was futile. But the same request would readily be granted if real benefits could be shown to flow from it. The challenge of moral philosophy in such an environment was to demonstrate how “private interest and public interest meet and amalgamate,” and how one’s devotion to the general good could also promote one’s personal advantage. Belief in that conjunction—that one could do well by doing good—was exactly what was meant by the “right understanding” of self-interest.
Hence, it was imperative to educate democratic citizens in this understanding, to teach them how to reason their own way to acceptance of the greater good. The American example made Tocqueville hopeful that the modern principle of self-interest could be so channeled, hedged about, habituated, and clothed as to produce public order and public good, even in the absence of “aristocratic” sources of authority. But it would not happen of its own accord.
“Enlighten them, therefore, at any price.” Or, as another translation expresses it, “Educate them, then.” Whatever else we may believe about the applicability of Tocqueville’s ideas to the present day, we can be in no doubt that he was right in his emphasis upon education. But not just any kind of education. He was talking about what we call liberal education, in the strictest sense of the term, an education that makes men and women capable of the exercise of liberty, and equips them for the task of rational self-governance. And the future of that ideal of education is today very much in doubt.
And finally, he uses Tocqueville to defend the traditional liberal arts:
So we must be Tocquevillean. That means we should not be too quick to discard an older model of what higher education is about, a model that the conventional four-year residential liberal-arts college, whatever its failures and its exorbitant costs, has been preeminent in championing. And that is the model of a physical community built around a great shared enterprise: the serious and careful reading and discussion of classic literary, philosophical, historical, and scientific texts.
What we may need, however, is to be more rigorous in thinking through what we want from such a model of education, and what we can readily dispense with. Perhaps we do not need college to be what it all too often has become: an extended Wanderjahre of post-adolescent entertainment and experimentation, played out in the soft, protected environment of idyllic, leafy campuses, less a rite du passage than a retreat to a very expensive place where one can defer the responsibilities of adult life.
At the very least, such an education ought to help us resist the uncritical embrace of technological innovation, and equip us to challenge it constructively and thoughtfully—and selectively. There is, for example, no product of formal education more important than the cultivation of reflection, of solitary concentration, and of sustained, patient, and disciplined attention—habits that an overwired and hyperconnected way of life is making more and more difficult to put into practice. If we find it increasingly difficult to compose our fragmented and disjointed browsings into coherent accounts, let alone larger and deeper structures of meaning, that fact represents a colossal failure of our educations to give us the tools we need to make sense of our lives. Colleges and universities should be the last institutions to succumb to this tendency. They should resist it with all their might, because that is precisely what they are there for.
Read the entire piece.